Sundance is the biggest independent film festival in the United States: it’s also one of the most inclusive.
Beginning in 1978, the festival has long been a champion for LGBTQ+ cinema. Film scholar B. Ruby Rich even coined the “New Queer Cinema” movement at a panel there, inspired by work from Derek Jarman, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin, and more in 1992.
Since then, queerness has become an intrinsic part of Sundance across all categories, including the main competition and also genre faves like Midnight. Recent years have brought us a huge range of modern LGBTQ+ classics from And Then We Danced, Pariah, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post to Flee, Call Me By Your Name, and Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen.
So which new entries have become instant queer classics in 2023? Here are ten LGBTQ+ films from Sundance that you must keep an eye out for in the coming year. It’s your queer duty.
In his first non-documentary feature, Cassandro director Roger Ross Williams atomic drops every wrestling cliche you can imagine out of the ring. The fact that Saúl Armendáriz AKA the “Liberace of Lucha Libre” competed as openly gay in the 80s would be enough to set this story apart, but what impresses most is how Williams avoids giving in to the obvious excesses of showmanship. Yes, Saúl was — and still is — an absolute star, and of course, Gael García Bernal nails every beat, but the quieter moments somehow carry even more gravitas here, and that’s not easy to pull off against a flamboyantly spectacular Lucha Libre backdrop.
Based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, Eileen follows the titular secretary in 60s Massachusetts where a dreary winter becomes more thrilling with the arrival of Rebecca, a colleague who lights up the juvenile prison where they work with a radiant sapphic energy. Dubbed by Anne Hathaway herself as “Carol meets Reservoir Dogs,” Eileen is an odd, daring film that utilizes her A-list wattage in surprising and extremely seductive ways that you won’t see coming. Also, it’s very sexy. Did we mention it’s sexy?
When her sister goes missing, an Indigenous American woman named Jax does everything she can to protect her teenage niece from the truth — and her white grandparents — as they set out together for the state powwow. What resonates most here is Lily Gladstone’s brusque character work and director/co-writer Erica Tremblay’s desire to explore a queer Native American experience. Fancy Dance might occasionally lose its step at points, but it’s a trailblazing film regardless, and we hope more like it will soon follow in those fancy footsteps.
It’s Only Life After All
The Power of Two has never felt stronger than it does in It’s Only Life After All, director Alexandria Bombach’s deep dive into the world of the Indigo Girls. 40 years of home movies, various archives, and brand new interviews combine to reflect on their legacy while forcing Amy Ray and Emily Saliers to do the same. What ensues is a surprisingly intimate yet still timely look at their career and how far ahead they’ve long been in terms of queer rights and activism beyond that as well.
Daniella Carter. Dominique Silver. Koko Da Doll. Liyah Mitchell. In just over 70 minutes, Kokomo City makes superstars of them all, except, it’s clear that they’ve always been stars. It’s just they hadn’t been given the platform they deserved until Grammy-nominated producer-turned-director D. Smith came along and decided to showcase their story. This ferociously queer documentary unpacks what life as a Black trans sex worker is really all about. None of these conversations shy away from the difficult realities of that world, but there’s also a joy and power to be had even as the film unpacks how racism, transphobia, and sex work intersect in America. In short, Kokomo City is brilliant. Is it too early to already call this the best documentary of 2023?
Little Richard: I Am Everything
“I Am Everything” is quite a claim for most people, but the true king of rock ‘n’ roll, Little Richard, has earned the right to make such claims with ease. Through Lisa Cortés’ documentary, we get to see the true impact Little Richard had on American music and pop culture as a whole, something which is long overdue in a world where his contributions have long been whitewashed and sidelined in favor of those who came after. Time is also devoted to Little Richard’s struggles as a queer Black man in the 60s and 70s, refusing to shy away from how he tried to suppress this key aspect of his life. This is a must-see documentary and no understanding of music history, Black history, and also queer history would be complete without Little Richard’s story.
Sundance sure does love “a day in the life of” dramas, and while they can sometimes be a bit hit-and-miss, there’s a lot to love about Mutt, which follows a trans man named Feña as he reckons with three painful encounters in the space of just 24 hours. Trans writer/director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz approaches the story with much sensitivity, and Lîo Mehiel is phenomenal in the lead role, anchoring the different shades of light and dark with ease, no matter what the scene calls for. Whether Mutt ends up receiving wider distribution beyond Sundance or not, the film remains an extremely memorable showcase for future talent you need to keep an eye on.
Believe the hype because Ira Sachs’ new film, his best in a 26-year-long career, is the new queer classic you’ve been waiting for. To say too much would spoil the film’s impact, but just know that Passages stars Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos in career-best roles. (Well, except maybe Paddington, of course—that will forever be Ben’s shining jewel.) But this film is a very different beast thanks to blistering performances from the central trio in an extremely messy and extremely hot love triangle. Oh, and believe the hype you’ve heard about that sex scene too. It’s one for the ages.
Much has been made of how LGBTQ+ representation is improving in recent years, but there are certain parts of our community who still remain all but invisible on screen. Enter Slow, a Lithuanian love story between a contemporary dancer named Elena and an asexual sign language interpreter called Dovydas. With her sophomore feature, director Marija Kavtaradze untangles the complexity of their relationship through an extremely intimate lens. There’s a lot to love about this one, but what stands out most is how it reminds us that queer people, and ace people in particular, often have to figure things out for themselves when it comes to romance because there isn’t a script set in stone for those who live outside the box.
Like Kokomo City, The Stroll gives a much-needed voice to Black trans sex workers in America, but co-directors Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker hone their perspective on those who lived and worked in NYC’s Meatpacking District, specifically. Lovell herself lived that life on “The Stroll”, so it’s through her that these women are reunited to tell their stories which examine trauma and gentrification, but also community and resilience. So like Kokomo City, The Stroll is a must-see documentary, and the two would complement each other extremely well in a perfect double bill.♦
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